In The Wild Swans at Coole the themes of love, time and nature are intertwined with patriotism and love for Ireland, resulting in a celebration of the swans and of what they symbolize. From a Historical-Biographical point of view, this poem is closely related to Yeats’ own life, especially his love for Maude Gonne. In consequence, the swan is a symbol for the woman and the poem is a lamentation for his unrequited love. The Mythological-Anthropological School of Thought reinforces this by arguing that swans are associated with feminine characteristics such as beauty and elegance. Moreover, the ‘nine-and-fifty swans’ give a sense of absence as it is an odd number and thus one swan will be alone, with no companion of its own. It could be argued that this proverbial swan is the narrator himself who was turned down by Maud and is now desolate. The rhyme scheme of ABCBDD, means that, in a similar way, neither the first nor the third line have a correspondent and thus they contrast with the rhyming couplet that stands as the perfect example of a harmonious pair.
The temperature of the water is made bearable by having companionship and thus the lake is describes as ‘companionable streams’. The ‘streams’ might represent the river of life and as such the coldness is a symbol for the difficulties in life that can be more easily overcome if they can be shared with somebody else. Unfortunately, the swans ‘scattered wheeling’ thus abandoning the narrator, just like the love of his life did. For him, remaining alone is not a question of ‘if’ but a question of ‘when’. The importance of love to the poem is emphasized through the romantic mood. This is created by the setting of an ‘October twilight’ and the ‘water that mirrors a still sky’ which gives a sense of peace and permanence. Unfortunately, this calm mood of the first stanzas gives way to the energetic flight of the birds in the third stanza described by the onomatopoeia ‘clamorous wings’. The return to the stillness in the last stanza, marked by the line ‘but now they drift on the still water’, may lead the readers to believe that the swans are not real. Despite their energetic nature they seem to replicate the vitality of the narrator thus suggesting that they are a product of his imagination and they act as he would want them to. Feminist critics point out that this displays some sexism as the male narrator wants the swans, representations of women, to remain still. To him, women should be ‘tamed’ by men and thus cease to be ‘wild swans’.
Another reading would be from the point of view that the swans remind the narrator of his old age. The ‘autumn beauty’ and the ‘October twilight’ might be metaphors for the decline and decay that the narrator experiences. The warmth of summer is giving way for the winter of the life and causes the author to reflect on his life. The 'bell-beat' may represent the clock bell and thus be a constant reminder to the narrator as well as to the readers that time is passing. His old age is taking its toll as once he ‘trod with a lighter tread' but regardless of his age, Yeats always portrays Ireland in an idealized fashion. The serene, beautiful swans are just one example of the harmony with nature present in his home county of Siglo.
Overall we could say that Yeats explores the themes of love and nature as well as an idyllic Ireland through rich imagery and a peaceful tone. However, his hope seems to flutter as the swans, the symbol of his love and youth, ‘scatter wheeling’.